Last week’s news of the suicide of Robin Williams was an unpleasant shock to many people throughout the world. It was an unwelcomed reminder for the public that Mr Williams was a whole human being, and not merely the talented actor and versatile comedian we knew. We saw him on screen and stage, larger than life, and relied on him to take away our pain, never thinking he might have pain of his own.
Although the news itself was distressing, I was more dismayed by the reaction of the public. I trawled the comment sections of websites such as CNN.com, Facebook, LinkedIn, which revealed the responding public to be selfish, arrogant and insensitive. Several people wrote, ‘I didn’t know he was so unhappy’, but none of them said how (or if) they actually knew Mr Williams. (It is important, however, to appear connected.) Other commentators were critical and judgemental, describing suicide as cowardly and selfish, and depression as weakness or self-indulgence. There was no compassion or attempt at understanding, perhaps because these are ‘soft’ feelings, (and it is important to appear tough).
Suicide is an irrevocable statement that the person could no longer endure the hell that life had become. I see it not as a cowardly or selfish act, but one of desperation. Depression is a serious medical condition, based not only on a person’s perceptions and reactions, but body chemistry as well. People with chronic depression are no more weak or self-indulgent than a diabetic who takes daily doses of insulin because his pancreas is insufficient.
There was another category of response that made me very angry. ‘All he had to do was talk to someone. I would have told him….’
This is a world that answers bad news with plastic, sterile phrases: ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or ‘Our hearts go out to the family.’ There is no compassion or sincerity in those stock phrases, so overused they are devoid of meaning, and which fall on hungry hearts starving for real human sentiment. When we try to tell someone of a difficulty we’re having, assuming we can get someone to listen, we may well be told, ‘Let’s put this in perspective; this has happened to me as well.’ You realize you’re being told your feelings of distress are not valid, because it’s happened to others. (With friends like that….). Insensitivity has devastating effects on a person’s emotions.
If we find someone to talk to, we can only hope that person will actually listen to us instead of formulating a response before we’ve finished our first sentence. We hope not to be told, ‘Let it go,’ or ‘all you have to do…’, or ‘just do….’ If it were that simple, we would have done it already. (It’s important to note that none of these responses include any investment of time or commitment from the person making them.) These solutions, so glibly offered, are bereft of sincerity, and the sense of desolation grows.
When we are in pain, we want care, compassion, validation and support; often we receive excuses, rationalizations, and dismissal. The deeper our sense of isolation, the more profoundly such responses hurt us. Some choose not to risk it, and it shouldn’t be a risk at all.
I think when we hear of the unhappiness and pain of others, it makes us uncomfortable because responsibility on our part is implied. Is this person telling me his problem because he expects me to do something about it? This woman is very unhappy; what does she want (what is she trying to take away) from me? When we hear of someone’s suicide, (people we actually know, not people we’ve heard of), a thought persists—what did I (not) do? Is this my fault?
As much as we are responsible for ourselves, we do have some responsibility for others as well. We really are our brothers’ keepers. It doesn’t require a lot—trying being pleasant and see how that positively affects another person’s day. Don’t make that stinging retort, as satisfying as it might feel, and see if that improves the situation. If another person seems out of control, walk away instead of forcing the issue and making matters worse. Listen with a closed mouth and open ears instead of the other way around. While trying to understand the problem, listen with discernment and understand the person as well. The person is speaking to you from his/her point of view; don’t make the conversation about you.
As an alternative to telling people, ‘What you need to do is…’, say to them, ‘Why don’t you and I try this?’ Be part of the solution, or be quiet. Keep your word, or don’t give it, but don’t go halfway and change your mind. Be consistent. Offer the person the choice of being alone, but let that person make the choice, not you. Display the kind of environment a person would want to live in, not leave.
We want our talented and funny people to distract us from our woes and take away our pain. We want our friends to love us and comfort us in our desolation, to help us, understand us and support us in our times of need. We want them to be faithful, patient, loyal and ‘as constant as the northern star’.
That’s what they want from us too.
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